Them: What do you do for a job?The outside world tends to think of commercial aviation as beginning and ending with the airlines. Now, the major airlines may be the most common career goal, but there are a number of other "dream jobs," and in any case there are a lot of stepping-stone jobs that just might turn out to be your "dream job." In this post I'm going to discuss some of the various ways that people make money flying, and the qualifications needed to get hired at each. Pay, lifestyle, job security, and other in-detail aspects will be covered in subsequent posts. I'll start out with higher-end jobs and work my way down to jobs traditional considered to be stepping stones.
You: I'm a pilot.
Them: Oh, cool! What airline do you fly for?
You: I don't. I'm a (flight instructor, freight pilot, charter pilot, etc).
Them. Oh. When will you be a commercial pilot?
The majors aren't what they used to be. The airline business has always been cyclical, but the last four years have been one giant downturn with absolutely no relief in sight. That said, if you're a pilot, the major airlines are still often the #1 career goal.
For the purposes of this post, a major airline is one whose primary business is flying jet aircraft over 100 seats. Lately, analysts have taken to dividing United States majors into "legacy carriers" and "low cost carriers," ie LCC's. Legacies are the airlines that've been around a while: American, Alaska, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and USAirways. LCC's include Airtran, America West (merging with USAirways), Frontier, jetBlue, and Southwest. LCC's have also been cropping up in Europe, Canada, and parts of Asia.
In the US, Continental and Alaska are the only two legacy carriers likely to hire within the next few years. The rest have hundreds to thousands of pilots on furlough. Most LCC's, on the other hand, are hiring. Southwest and jetBlue alone account for most of the major airline hiring in the past several years. The downside to flying for these carriers is that your career potential is fairly limited: they only fly one type of aircraft, and do not fly internationally.
With fewer jobs available at the majors, competition for the slots can be fierce. The minimum requirements typically include an ATP certificate with 1000 hours as pilot in command of turbine powered aircraft. Realistic minimums are typically 4000+ hours total time with several thousand hours of turbine PIC. Most majors (but not all) require or strongly prefer a 4-year degree - in anything, not just aviation. Anybody aspiring to the majors must be able to hold a Class I medical, with requirements including vision correctable to 20/20; they should also have a clean criminal record and relatively good driving record.
Major Cargo Airlines
Cargo pilots used to be the redheaded stepchildren of the airline industry. Not so these days - as pilots for legacy carriers face paycuts and furloughs, major cargo pilots find themselves in the uncustomary position of being envied. Pilots at the largest carriers (FedEx, UPS, ABX Air) enjoy good pay and job security as the worldwide cargo industry continues its profitable growth. A number of less-known carriers such as Kalitta, Evergreen, and Atlas only fly widebody aircraft on international routes. The pay at these carriers is spotty, but improving.
Getting hired at a major cargo carrier requires qualifications on par with or exceeding those for the major airlines. At FedEx, these days it's almost a requirement to have a personal recommendation from a current FDX line pilot.
There was a time when practically all airline pilots were ex-military aviators. To an aspiring young airline pilot, then, the advice was: go put in some time with the Air Force.
Times have changed. The military uses far fewer pilots than it used to, and keeps them for longer. Competition for military slots is strong, and many cadets wash out before completing training. Depending on which branch you fly for, your commitment may be well over 10 years. And while there are very good things to be said for military service, it's not always easy or fun, particularly if you have a family.
Some advice from the perspective of somebody who would've loved to fly for the military but was unable to: if you really want to join the military, and you want to spend many years flying for them, go for it. If you're looking at it mainly as a stepping stone to your dream airline job, I'd choose another path.
Corporate aviation barely existed thirty years ago. These days, more and more companies are seeing business aviation as a useful tool, and the growth is predicted to continue throughout the next ten years. Some corporate aircraft are owner-flown, but most companies employ professional pilots. The aircraft can range from single-engine turboprops to large jet aircraft like the Boeing BBJ, nee 737-800.
Corporate pilot pay, lifestyle, and job security can vary greatly, depending on the operation you fly for. In the past, corporate pilots have become airline pilots and vice versa, but neither is really a stepping stone to the other. They are really considered two separate careers. The job itself is usually quite different from airline flying. You are not only a pilot, but often also a dispatcher, a flight attendant, and a baggage handler. Keeping the boss happy is a big part of the job; unfortunately, they sometimes pressure their pilots to take unsafe risks. Most corporate operations take place under FAR 91, which are the same rules that govern general aviation. This allows greater flexibility than airline operations, but the captain must exercise considerable discretion to preserve safety of flight.
Corporate job requirements are as varied as the jobs themselves. There are companies that will hire fairly inexperienced pilots into lower-paying jobs, but you'll need to do a lot of ground-pounding to find them if you don't know someone at the operation. Most companies, however, require significant experience, including time in their type of airplane, and possibly even a type rating. Unlike the major airlines, a 4-year degree is not a common requirement, although it'll never hurt.
A relatively new development in aviation is the rise of fractional operators like NetJets and FlexJet. These companies manage and staff a fleet of business aircraft, each of which is owned collectively by several clients. Flying for a fractional operator can combine some of the best aspects of corporate and airline flying; pay, however, is well under that of major airlines and many corporate operations. Some pilots have flown for fractional carriers, then used that experience to move on to better-paying corporate gigs.
Getting hired with a fractional typically requires less experience than a major airline or a corporate flight department. Usually, an ATP and first class medical is required, but there is generally no PIC turbine time requirement, nor a requirement for experience in a certain airframe.
One more job that may involve flying Gulfstreams, Citations, or other business jets is charter flying. This is generally done under FAR 135, which is somewhat like the rules that airlines fly under (FAR 121) but not quite as stringent. Charter outfits have a bit of a bad reputation for pushing their pilots to fly and other abuses, but there are many quality operations out there. The best way to find them: they're the ones that require far more flight time than you have!
Okay, perhaps that's an overstatement, but my point is this: not all charters operators are equal. If you find this kind of flying appealing, it is possible to make it a good career by finding a quality employer once you have good experience. If you're looking for a timebuilding job that is perhaps an alternative to regional airlines, you may well find an operator that'll take you on - but you will likely be used and abused.
Regional is a misnomer. It conjures up images of a Beech 1900 putt-putting its' way to East Haystack, IL, which fits the description of very few regional carriers today. Many of today's regionals are huge operations employing thousands of pilots to fly hundreds of advanced 50-90 seat jets on routes that approach transcontinental length. If this sounds exciting, consider that it happened at the expense of job opportunity at major airline carriers. The regionals are increasingly becoming a career destination of their own, or at least a lengthy stopover.
Regionals still vary a lot in pay, benefits, lifestyle, and job security. I'll discuss specifics in a future post, but suffice it to say that there are "bottom-feeders" out there. They attract pilots looking for quick turbine PIC time - which qualifies them for a major airline job quicker - and work them hard for poor pay. The problem is that these are often the very companies flying 90-seat jets at ridiculously low costs, doing away with the very jobs that the pilots are working towards.
Enough preaching. My advice is that if you go the regional airline route, try to get hired by a quality company that has more to offer than a quick captain upgrade. Growth can start and stop very quickly in this industry. If it stops at your regional, you want to be someplace that you won't be miserable and destitute in the right seat. For that matter, consider if the regional is a place you could spend ten years or more. Nobody knows when or if major airline hiring will pick back up again.
The minimum qualifications for regionals have been quite scant lately, with a number of people hired at under 1000 hours total time. I'd say the average minimums would be a Commercial certificate with Class I medical, 1000 hrs with 100 hrs multi-engine time. Although not required, things like an ATP written or 4-year degree will help you get hired, possibly with less hours than the next guy. Note that a number of regionals have very recently stopped hiring or even furloughed, so competitive minimums may go up quickly.
Okay, this post is getting too long, I'm splitting it up. In Flying Careers Part 2B & C: Unique jobs, timebuilding jobs.